Friday, October 22, 2004

Mary Buffamonti called her doctor in Tonawanda, N.Y., this week and found out that she couldn’t get a flu shot.

So she crossed the Canadian border and went to a clinic in Fort Erie, Ontario, just across the Niagara River from Buffalo, N.Y.

“That was the main thing, the shortage. I didn’t know if I could get a shot or not,” the 77-year-old Mrs. Buffamonti said.

Americans are traveling to Canada for an injection of flu vaccine and a shot at some peace of mind.

They are crossing the Peace Bridge from New York to Ontario.

People in Washington state are driving to a clinic at the Vancouver International Airport in British Columbia.

Others are heading north on Interstate 29 from Minnesota to go to Winnipeg, Manitoba.

And they are crossing from Maine into New Brunswick to go to a clinic in St. Stephen.

It is just a trickle, but the search for flu vaccine in Canada shows the concern people have over the shortage here.

“I think people who are at risk are feeling vulnerable and want protection,” said Dr. Artaj Singh, who runs an urgent-care clinic in Fort Erie that began offering the flu vaccine to Americans this week.

Canada’s provincial governments buy vaccine for residents. Doctors also purchase vaccine for their own patients, and Americans can tap into that supply.

“If Americans show up, we wouldn’t refuse them as long as we have vaccine,” said Mary Narramore, executive director of the private, nonprofit clinic Victorian Order of Nurses in Saint John, New Brunswick.

The Victorian Order of Nurses plans to give vaccinations two days next week at a pharmacy in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, across the St. Croix River from Calais, Maine. People from Maine have signed up for shots, but it’s not clear how many Americans will be vaccinated.

The Vancouver Airport Medical Clinic, a private clinic at Vancouver International Airport, has vaccinated about 200 Americans. But on Tuesday the clinic stopped selling flu shots to walk-in customers so it could have enough vaccine to meet contracts with businesses at the airport that want their employees vaccinated.

“We’ve had such an influx that we just had to cut it off,” said Claudia Moeller, office manager at Vancouver Airport Medical Clinic.

Most of the demand came from residents in Washington state who drove across the border. Others were business travelers.

In Ontario, Dr. Singh said he has access to “a few thousand doses,” which he bought from vaccine-maker Aventis Pasteur. He prompted a stampede from Buffalo, N.Y., this week when he said his clinic’s private supply of vaccine was available to Americans for about $40 a shot.

He is making 100 doses available each day to Americans at his two urgent-care clinics in Ontario as long as he has vaccine.

People in Erie County, where Buffalo is located, have been on the prowl for vaccine since Manville, Calif.-based Citron Corp. left health officials there empty-handed. The Erie County Department of Health ordered 2,200 doses of vaccine, but they got none of it because British officials discovered Oct. 5 that some of Citron’s vaccine was contaminated with bacteria and stopped shipments.

People here in the D.C. area are equally desperate. Montgomery County plans to hold a lottery Wednesday to pick people at high risk for the flu who will receive the 800 flu shots the county has available. Thousands of people are expected to register. They can call 240/777-1050 to sign up.

Erie County officials aren’t discouraging people from traveling to Ontario.

“If people want to go over the bridge, it’s their prerogative. If someone asks me, I surely wouldn’t discourage them from going. But I’d ask them to explore every option here first,” said Charlie Batavia, a coordinator with the Erie County Department of Senior Services.

Canada never planned to get any vaccine from Citron, so it isn’t experiencing a shortage. Aventis Pasteur and ID Biomedical Corp. are the two companies producing vaccine for Canada. U.S. health officials hoped to have about 100 million doses available, but they will have only about 58 million doses.

The head of the Canadian Medical Association is urging doctors there to ensure the vaccine is used for the country’s own citizens.

Dr. Ross Inflaterr, chief medical officer for the province of Saskatchewan, said he expects people to cross the border from North Dakota to get flu shots. They are welcome to the vaccine, for about $16 a shot, as long as they don’t flood the clinics.

“As long as we don’t get into big numbers, we are going to let public health clinics sell vaccine [to Americans],” Dr. Inflaterr said.

Buffalo’s shortage has made Dr. Sigh’s clinics a popular alternative. The parking lots have been choked all week with New Yorkers in search of vaccine. As many as 20 Americans call each hour to inquire about the availability of vaccine.

“We didn’t know what to expect. The frenzy is a little overstated. It’s been extremely orderly,” Dr. Singh said. “We are letting in a batch of people at a time.”

The Minnesota Senior Federation has organized trips to Canada since 1995 for senior citizens in search of low-cost prescription drugs. This week they helped seniors get flu shots, too.

Their last trip scheduled this year left Minneapolis on Tuesday morning for Winnipeg, about seven hours away. The 27 senior citizens on the bus trip, paid for by Sen. Mark Dayton, Minnesota Democrat, got the prescription drugs they needed.

Eleven of them also got flu shots that they couldn’t find in Minnesota.

“I called my doctor and he said I didn’t qualify, even though I think I do,” said Janet Boos, 69. “I was delighted to be able to get one. It’s a long way to go for a shot.”

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